Friday, April 25, 2008

REVIEW: Hula Girls - Sang-il Lee (2006)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

A small mining town in Northern Japan is facing a crisis. The mine will soon be closing and the town is desperate to figure out how it will survive. The idea of building a new Hawaiian Center is brought forth - complete with stores, palm trees and hula dancers - but it isn't exactly embraced by the locals. Several young woman, however, decide to train to become the dancers and with the help of an ex-professional dancer from Tokyo, they work towards their dream of finding something outside of the cold desolate mining village.

The first act of the film plays out somewhat like many of the familiar light entertainment films of recent years - "The Full Monty" in particular comes to mind (though with young Japanese women, less nudity and more grass skirts). Even though it starts out a bit slow, when you see where it's headed and you add in some additional scenes of hula dancing (which show some more relevance and meaning to the moves), you kind of settle back and know that you'll be reasonably entertained. Until the beginning of the second act that is...

The story of the film is actually based on real events from the mid-sixties, so when things take a bit of a darker turn than expected for the conflict section of the film, I was curious where things were going. Where they went was pure schmaltz. The characters don't get a chance to do anything interesting except weep while every emotional scene gets stretched to its breaking point. One example is when two of the initial dancers are saying goodbye to each other. One of them is running along the top of a ridge chasing the truck carrying the other. Back and forth for what seems like ages they yell "See you!" to each other (seriously, about 20 odd times) until the camera holds...holds...holds...and holds on the remaining friend waving frantically while the music swells. Did I mention the music? Don't start me on the music...One of the worst examples of awful treacly soundtracks I've heard in a long time - each piece of music desperately trying to pull at your heartstrings because the filmmakers couldn't seem to do that through the story or the characters. The tinkling piano and delicate acoustic guitar would play, the tears would flow and my eyes would roll. Aside from the final climactic dance (possibly the best part of the movie), the film loses any sense of fun with even the standard montages (dancers slowly improving and starting to help one another) being cliche beyond the pale.

The film actually won a number of awards within Japan and was submitted as the country's entry for the 2007 Foreign Language Film Oscar. I guess the Japanese Academy and I will just have to agree to disagree...I greatly enjoy melodrama as well as light entertaining films - done well, either of those styles can be used very effectively to tell a great story. But not here.

Read more by Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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